Act now for farmers’ futures

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security13 Nov 2010Bruce Campbell

As climate change impacts unfold, compounding the many challenges already faced by smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fishers in the developing world, a new challenge emerges for science and policy: finding the right balance between food security, reducing emissions, and ensuring environmental and economic sustainability.

This blog is part of the blog series about the ‘It’s Down 2 Earth’ conference on agriculture, food security and climate change held in The Hague between 31 October and 5 November 2010. The participants discuss the future of agriculture; how it can contribute to food security and be placed at the heart of sustainable development and poverty eradication – and still be an instrument to challenge climate change?

We need better knowledge on these trade-offs. Priority should be given to identifying sustainable low-carbon options for agricultural development that ensure food security and livelihoods. Synergies between these multiple outcomes are possible – for example, conservation of coastal mangrove forests captures carbon and also buffers against coastal erosion, storm-surges and the impacts of sea-level rise. Mangroves also enhance fisheries production and support diverse coastal livelihoods. By finding technical and institutional options for mitigation that support livelihoods and food security, we can create benefits for farmers, food systems and the environment.

We also need greater clarity on where investments will have the greatest impact. Current approaches to managing climate risks – such as mobile pastoralism, community food storage facilities, climate information services, and index-based insurance products – provide a strong starting point for helping women and men in small-scale farming and food industries prepare for increasing variability in the weather. Our challenge is to improve people’s access to established and emerging risk-management solutions.

Even a two-degree temperature rise will destabilize current farming systems, necessitating major changes. Researchers are already finding adaptation approaches at multiple levels, from adjusting a particular agricultural practice such as the time of planting, to changing crop varieties, switching to new crops, or moving out of crop farming altogether. However, these changes can be difficult, and the challenge is how to enable them without further stressing peoples’ livelihoods. Time is of the essence: farmers and agencies involved in food systems must stay ahead of the unprecedented changes that will occur in the coming decades. By adopting an approach of ‘accelerated adaptation’, we can help farming and food systems be ready in advance.

New challenges call for new ways of working. Agricultural science, and research on livelihoods, social institutions and food security, must be better integrated with climate science. We also need to bring the knowledge and perspectives of farmers together with decision-makers at other levels. It is crucial that research in agriculture, food security and climate change continues to improve and deliver, to allow more confident decision-making and the allocation of limited resources towards uncertain climatic futures.